Public Comment

Commentary: U.S. Wars Over Arms Shipments

By Kent MacDougall
Tuesday March 06, 2007

Bush administration accusations that Iran is supplying roadside bombs that are killing American soldiers in Iraq are all too reminiscent of pretexts used by half a dozen previous administrations to justify acts of war. 

Weapons shipments first became a casus belli in 1914 when Woodrow Wilson was president. Determined to prevent revolutionary Mexico from slipping out of U.S. hegemonic control, and a full three years before the United States declared war on Germany, Wilson ordered a U.S. naval fleet to prevent a shipment of German machine guns and ammunition from reaching Mexico. U.S. battleships bombarded Veracruz, the expected port of delivery, and Marines occupied it after several days of bloody house-to-house fighting. Alerted, the German ship sailed down the coast and unloaded at another Caribbean port. The Marines remained in Veracruz for seven months, and U.S. military incursions in Mexico continued for another five years. 

In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge used real or imagined weapons shipments to justify armed intervention in Nicaragua. Faced with a popular revolt against a Washington-supported political faction that was illegally in office, Coolidge charged that Russian Bolshevism threatened Nicaragua and that a Bolshevist-influenced Mexican government was supplying the Nicaraguan rebels with arms. So the Marines, who had guarded American interests in Nicaragua from 1912 to 1925, returned after less than a year’s absence for seven years of counter-guerrilla warfare. 

In 1954, it was Guatemala’s turn. The supposed menace was its mildly reformist government’s purchase of Czech arms to defend itself against an impending military coup engineered by the United States. Citing the Czech arms purchase as proof of “communist infiltration,” the Eisenhower administration unleashed a small army of Guatemalan exiles and Central American mercenaries that the CIA had recruited and trained, and directed their invasion of Guatemala. Democracy was crushed and replaced by a succession of brutal right-wing dictatorships. 

John F. Kennedy dragged the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 in ordering the interdiction on the high seas of Soviet missiles en route to Cuba, in defense of its revolutionary government against the very real threat of a U.S. invasion. The crisis this blockade precipitated was dispelled only by removal of missiles that had already reached Cuba in exchange for a U.S. secret agreement to remove comparable American missiles from Turkey and to pledge not to invade Cuba. 

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration used the double-barreled pretext that Nicaragua was both receiving Soviet bloc weaponry and supplying arms to anti-government guerrillas in nearby El Salvador to justify a violent campaign to overthrow Nicaragua’s reformist government. While the CIA mined Nicaraguan harbors and blew up fuel depots, bridges and power stations, the U.S. military recruited, trained and supplied a surrogate army of “freedom fighters.” These “Contras” sabotaged rural cooperatives, schools and health clinics. They also murdered civilian supporters of the Sandinista government in a partially successful campaign to destabilize the government and undermine its popular support. 

Since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, an emboldened and increasingly bellicose U.S. political/military establishment has used ever more flimsy justifications for armed intervention overseas. And weaponry has gained new prominence as a pretext. In 1998, Bill Clinton ordered U.S. Navy warships to fire missiles that demolished a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, on the strength of a single soil sample taken near the plant that contained a chemical “precursor” in the manufacture of nerve gas. And in 2003, Iraq’s nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction” provided the chief pretext for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. 

And now comes Iran, a more formidable adversary than nearly all targeted by previous administrations on charges of receiving or supplying weapons deemed threatening to American interests. Attacking Iran for supplying weapons to Iraqi resistance fighters would ensure that this repetition of history would end not in farce but in tragedy for all involved. 


Kent MacDougall is a retired UCB  

professor of journalism.